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National Parks: Project-Based Learning in Our Most Important Places

Milton Chen

Senior Fellow
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This summer, when millions of families took the iconic American vacation in our National Parks, I had a chance to visit with many educators who are using the Parks for place-based learning. In June, I spoke at the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom conference, a passionate group of teachers, park rangers, and nonprofit educators who are giving students a deeper, more meaningful connection to the history of slavery in our nation. The Underground Railroad Network is not a single National Park but, as its name indicates, a network of places far more extensive than I was aware of.

As I wrote in a Snapshots of Innovation: Travels With Chen last November, the National Parks -- in person and online -- hold some of the best resources for teaching across the curricula and age groups. I'm currently serving on a 12-citizen panel appointed by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to advise the National Park System, which represents 394 of America's most significant places, from the National Mall, which has just added the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, to Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone, to the Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania, the site of such moving remembrances on the 10th anniversary of September 11.

At the Underground Railroad conference, I learned of one amazing project organized by a North Carolina couple, Suepinda Keith and Kevin Hicks, who became concerned that teenagers stop riding bikes and start getting into cars, with a decline in their physical fitness. Spoke 'N Revolutions (a great name) organized nine teens to bike the Underground Railroad, starting in Selma, Alabama and ending at Niagara Falls, a 1,800 mile trip. The teens repaired and built their own bicycles and prepared for more than a year for this one-month trip that resulted in a wealth of new experiences, relationships, and revelations of history.

And overcoming self-imposed limitations. At the start, one student lamented she could never complete a five-mile training circuit, but on the trip, she often biked 50 miles or more each day. This is project-based learning at its best, combining travel to powerful places with authentic experience of history and geography, collaboration towards a common goal, and intense physical activity. And using the Internet to document the trip, as you can read from their blogs.

The National Parks turned 95 in August and NPS Director Jon Jarvis took the opportunity to state a bold vision for the National Park Service as it approaches its Centennial. In an address at Ford's Theater in Washington, he laid out a Call to Action with 36 initiatives to dramatically elevate the value of the Parks for all Americans.

A majority of the 36 "action steps" address education and technology, from reaching more youth from diverse backgrounds to creating digital media. That same week, I served as chair for the first-ever meeting of an NPS educational advisory committee, composed of distinguished researchers, teachers, and leaders of national education groups.

We met at Lowell National Historical Park outside of Boston, created through a partnership with the University of Massachusetts-Lowell (UML) and community groups, to reinvigorate a city that was a cradle of the Industrial Revolution, where the Concord and Merrimack Rivers transported raw materials and powered the cotton mills where "mill girls" left their farm communities to come for a better life.

The renovated factories house working looms and extensive exhibits. I was reminded, in looking at the cotton bales, that slave labor was the hidden energy source for those textile mills. This visit connected the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, and the Industrial Revolution for me in ways I've never fully appreciated. Every freshman at UML receives a tour of this National Park and education students learn to use the city as their classroom through the Tsongas Industrial History Center, a hands-on history, science, and professional development center named after Senator Paul Tsongas, who championed this park partnership.

Our committee created groups to work on stating a "Declaration of Learning" to blend informal and formal learning, pre-K through gray; advance a research agenda to study the outcomes of park-based experiences; develop digital tools for learners of all ages; and create new partnerships and funding sources with educational agencies, institutions, and foundations. As one example of how the Parks are keeping pace with mobile media, check out this new National Mall app.

I hope to share more about this committee's work as it progresses.

How have you used your own experiences in the national parks to enliven the curriculum? Or the wealth of virtual NPS field trips and Web content? Are you interested in exploring these possibilities? Please leave a comment.

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Comments (4) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

"Professor" Paul GTO Briones's picture
"Professor" Paul GTO Briones
Host and Co-Creator of Virtual Science University & Pre-AP Science Instructor

In the early 1990's, when I was the Department Chair at MOJO Permian in West Texas the REAL Friday Night Lights High School, I took about 20 students to Big Bend National Park twice a year! On those Field Trips our students learned more Archeology, Plant Morphology, Ecology, and Natural History than what they ever learned at school. I was fortunate to also have two accompanying University Professors from my alma mater the University of Texas of the Permian Basin to lead the Field Trips. Students are empowered when they are given these opportunities to explore their national parks. To this very day, I hear awesome stories from my ex-students about how these annual field trips deeply impacted their lives!

LaShawne's picture

I am a graduate education major preparing to switch careers from the corporate sector. I am an avid outdoorsman and a true "geek" when it comes to national parks and museums. I belive field trips are an essential part of the learning process. Visiting these national sites offer students a perspective that is not available in books or the classroom. I can remember most of my school field trips from childhood. My favorite was a visit to Jamestown,VA. I can still remember the actors and stories that were told. I am appreciative that there are organizations dedicated to assisting teachers with incorporating visits to these historic sites.

Rachel Gall's picture
Rachel Gall
Student Teacher from Virginia

I am new to the teaching world and am currently working on my student teaching in a 6th grade English class. This blog was of such interest to me because just this week the team of teachers I am working with were discussing the possibilities of how to expose our students to the world outside of Virginia Beach. We have so many students who have never left their district and so it is hard for them to visualize and even value the variety of places and regions that exist right here in the states. One teacher had commented that she wished we could load them all up and drive them around the country so that they could see and experience first-hand the amazing places they have never been. However taking 60 middle schoolers around the country is not a real possibility at the moment, and so this blog got me thinking about the ways teachers who visit those places on their own can bring that place-based learning to the students in the classroom. I remember how much a benefitted from field trips and trips I was able to take with my family and I want to be able to do that for students even if I cannot take them there myself. This entry has really got me thinking about how to make that happen and I am going to continue researching ways and methods to bring the outside world in! =)

Elizabeth Abruzzo's picture

Two summers ago, my husband and I both found ourselves with two months free from work. Hoping to never be in a similiar situation (until retirement), we decided to capitalize and take a cross country trip. We loaded up the SUV and spent five weeks on a tent-camping tour of many of our beautiful country's national parks. I returned from our trip with over 3,000 pictures and bags of maps, posters, brochures, books, and other assorted resources amassed at the 8 national parks we visited (Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Badlands). The trip, while a life-altering event in and of itself, also became a part of who I am as a teacher. As opportunites arise, I incorporate photographs, stories, geography lessons, geology lessons, biology lessons, and even meteorology lessons (for the record, I do not recommend tent-camping on the prairie of South Dakota during a tornado-producing thunderstorm)into my regular curriculum. This trip represented the fullfillment of a lifelong dream to "see" the country. I truly hope that each of my students one day gets to share the experience, and I hope that my excitement and passion will plant a seed for a future road trip of their own!

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